Dining in the Dark: Empathize from Plates to Policies

Written By Sylvia Leung 

Sara Minkara (President and Founder of ETI) hosting a dining in the dark event with a room full of Harvard Kennedy School of Government students (April 10, 2014).
Sara Minkara (President and Founder of ETI) hosting a dining in the dark event with a room full of Harvard Kennedy School of Government students (April 10, 2014).

“As an aspiring policy maker, I feel that everyone should go through dining in the dark…” said Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and Harvard Business School student Amandla Ooko-Ombaka. Amandla was one of the 60+ HKS students and friends who were blind-folded while eating a three-course meal at the April 2014 HKS Dining in the Dark event. Sara Minkara (President and Founder of ETI) and I planned this event to increase awareness and empathy for the blind and disabled.

I totally agree with Amandla. Everyone should experience dining in the dark because there’s no better way to empathize the blind than to experience being blind yourself. While attendees learned how to dine blind-folded, they grew hungry to better understand and help the blind and disabled. Throughout the three and a half hour event, our conversations progressed from plates of food, processes of life and policies of change.

Plates of Food

By eating blind-folded, attendees tapped into their under-utilized senses. Amandla commented, “I am grateful for the experience of really focusing on the sensation of eating with friends - the sound of their voices, their spatial orientation, the smell of our food, the need to be purposeful with each movement of my cutlery.” As a non-blind folded emcee of the event, I witnessed people tenderly touching their table settings to navigate their surroundings, slowly savoring their food to appreciate the flavors, and listening carefully to recognize their tablemates’ voices. I heard comments of both struggles and accomplishments. Initially, attendees appeared frustrated or anxious to fail at dining properly. However, in the end, I heard attendees cheer when they were able to accurately guess what they were eating and neatly finish their food.

Processes of Life

The blind-folded dining experience opened up a whole new conversation about the processes of life. I remember the conversation shifting when one attendee asked Sara about her personal experience as a blind person.  While Sara shared her life stories and a unique can-do attitude, I felt the audience grew more energetic, curious and compassionate. There were more thoughtful and heartfelt questions, including questions about how blind cross the street, when is it okay to offer help to a blind person and the dating experience for the blind.

Policies of Change

As the event was coming to a close, attendees started asking more action-oriented and problem-solving questions. Sara responded by urging everyone to accommodate the blind and disabled in whatever work they do. In a room full of future policymakers, I think attendees walked away with the key point that blind and disabled persons should be considered in all decision-making. Decision-making could be in the government at the local, state or national level. Decision-making could be in the private for-profit or non-profit sector. Whatever the case may be, blind and disabled persons should be considered anywhere where policies and decisions are made. I’ve learned from Sara and this event that such policy considerations should go beyond giving charity to the disabled. Instead, such policy considerations should enable the disabled to self-sustain and contribute to society.

From plates to policies, I took away so many lessons and memories from this Dining in the Dark experience. I hope everyone (including you the reader!) will attend or even host your own Dining in the Dark event.

Special thanks to the HKS Center for Public Leadership for sponsoring the Dining in the Dark event. 

Greg and the Library

¡Hola amigos! Hello again from Nicaragua. I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself and share with you about one of our first visits on this trip to Nicaragua, which has turned out to be more valuable than we could have guessed at the time. First a little background about me: My name is Greg Aikens and I am currently serving as the Program Director for ETI. I work as a teacher of students who are blind and visually impaired for Cobb County School District in metro Atlanta and have been teaching at Russell Elementary for the past 2 years. Go Roadrunners! I have done some traveling abroad and had encountered the needs of people, particularly children, with disabilities in developing nations and for several years my goal has been to get involved in international development in this area. I was thrilled to learn about ETI last summer and discover our mission to empower youth with disabilities around the world. I joined the ETI team in September and was delighted to become part of the team traveling to Nicaragua this summer.

Which brings me back to my story… Hannah wrote about our first attempt at finding the library for the blind in Managua. We were delighted to connect with the rehabilitation center next to where the library used to be, but we were pretty disappointed to find that no one at the rehabilitation center could tell us where it had moved. We mentioned this in passing to Manuel, a veritable Nicaraguan jack of all trades who also owns the guest house where we are staying, and like magic, the next morning he produced the phone number and an accurate address for the new location of the library.

Coming up with the address itself is an impressive feat, but in Nicaragua, that is only half of solving the puzzle. Manuel was also able to give us accurate directions to the address. In general, Nicaraguan addresses don’t work like addresses in the United states. Very few homes and buildings have street numbers, and while most of the streets probably have names, no one knows them or uses them for navigation. Instead, Nicaraguan addresses direct people to a general area of town and then to a landmark. From there, directions are given in the number of blocks in a certain direction. Sometimes these directions are the standard compass directions we are accustomed to, north, south, east, west, but often east and west are replaced with ariba and de bajo (the spanish words for up and down). To spice things up, some directionals include things like “toward the lake.” Occasionally the landmark will be something that no longer exists, e.g. “where the large planters used to be” or “where the movie theater was.” So navigation in Nicaragua requires a general knowledge of local geography, a great sense of direction, and sometimes knowledge of recent or not so recent history. As strange and disjointed as this system seems to my North American sensibilities, the system works. Thus far, we have been able to find every location we have needed with minimal searching, mostly thanks to the expert advice provided by Manuel.

The address for the braille library includes a large tree next to a small alley, which turned out to be a very accurate description. Our team arrived in the early afternoon and was greeted by Ynin, the coordinator for the library for the blind. Our intention was to request a meeting with the director of the library, but after sharing a little about ETI’s mission and our goal to have a seminar for parents of children who are blind and visually impaired while we are in Nicaragua, Ynin offered to help us contact parents and children to invite them and even offered us the use of the library space for the seminar. Our team was blown away by her hospitality and willingness to help. In planning for this trip, we knew that securing a location for a parent seminar would be one of the most important and potentially most challenging tasks to complete, and on basically our second day of work in Nicaragua, we had not only secured a space, but found someone who was willing to invite parents and children on our behalf to attend the seminar. This was a major step forward that made the rest of our work in Nicaragua far easier.





Bienvenidos From Nicaragua

Hola from sunny (and humid) Nicaragua! The ETI team has now been on the ground for 10 days, staying in Managua, the capital city. Let’s introduce you to the members of the 2014 Nicaragua ETI Team: IMG_8721 (Left to right) Shontelle Brathwaite, Hannah Huhr, Sean Whalen, Greg Aikens, David Lim

We’ve had a whirlwind of adventures already, which we look forward to sharing with you in the next several posts. This includes meeting with a couple of local organizations working with the blind population, visiting schools, and setting ourselves up for a parent workshop! While we’ve been working hard, we’ve also had opportunities to check out some cool cities and get to know the culture here a little better. So be sure to stay tuned because we’ve got some goodies and treats for you! Plus, you’ll get to meet each of us a little bit more ;)

We are so excited to be here and have been having a blast getting to meet the very helpful and friendly Nicaraguans! Some of us (ahem, maybe all of us) are also brushing up on our español, which is an added bonus.

Hasta pronto!

A ETI Staff Reflection from Nicaragua

Names of non-ETI members have been changed to protect privacy. It didn't even occur to me. Not until I saw my outstretched hand, dangling untouched, as the other ETI members reached out and took Jason's hand into their own.

"So nice to meet you," they took turns saying. Jason couldn't see my hand so of course the way to deliver a handshake would be to take his. Why hadn't I thought of this? I stood awkwardly, unsure of how to remedy my faux pas now that pleasantries were over.

His grandfather beckoned the four of us to sit, pulling the room's dining chairs into a living room arrangement. We sat in a circle with Jason, his grandfather and our liaison from the Asociacion Nicaraguense de No Videntes behind me. I was soon overwhelmed with an earnest eagerness to hear  Jason's stories, to hear his "favorites," his aspirations, his frustrations.

But ask a 15-year-old for paragraph-long answers and you'll be gladly met with single sentences and lone words. As David steadied his camera, and Sara and Henry volunteered questions, Jason shifted in his seat, hands on his knees as if he needed to attend to something. We were relentless with our curiosities. His voice was patient though, and his shy smiles, sprinkled in conversation, held a warm brightness that led us to Jason's love of soccer and math. He'll be a doctor in the future, he stated surely.

Throughout this exchange, the most memorable image was Jason's grandfather. Every time I glanced back at him, his softened eyes bore an expression of hard-won pride and endless, unwavering support for his grandson.

"God," the man said, "gave Jason to us as he is and we are blessed for what we have."

The realism and sincerity of his perspective commanded respect: respect for raising a grandson whose father works too far for him to come home more than once a month, for raising a grandson in a neighborhood with few kids to play and even fewer who understand. Despite the obstacles, countless and disheartening, both Jason and his grandfather share a tremendous optimism and deep gratitude for the world around them. Their determination to overcome has become an incredible ability to achieve. It is Jason who gives purpose to ETI's work and people lie Jason's grandfather who capture its meaning.

I left feeling indebted to Jason and his grandfather, for the sense of humility they imparted and the motivation we gained. Even as we headed out, Jason's grandfather thanked us, which felt noticeably reverse, for visiting and talking with them. The honor was ours, but the most we could return alongside the bowed "thank yous" was a warm, solid handshake: a gesture of trust and a promise of remembrance. This time, no hands were left hanging.

A few days of Nicaragua

[google-translator] Hola amigos!

It's the start of a new week here already, and tomorrow we will have been in Nicaragua for a full seven days. It actually feels like we've been here for more than a week though- perhaps because we've gotten so comfortable with getting around already.

We rented our own car, a tiny little Chevrolet, and have pretty much figured out the roadways over here. It's an exciting accomplishment for us!

photo (1)

So the past couple days have been filled with setting up different meetings and meeting with different organizations. A few days ago, we had a meeting with the director of The University of Thomas Moore, located here in Managua. That very first meeting, the director immediately welcomed us and set up a general interest meeting with the students the very next day. We got to meet a group  of about 20 students that came, already fully interested and on fire to begin working. It was so encouraging to see the local students here so ready to take on roles that will help their community. As each student went around stating what they're studying and explaining why they wanted to help, I caught a glimpse of how passionate the local Nicaraguans can be. DHL_5700

We're excited to begin working with this bunch and have high hopes for the future we can build with them!

Alright, time to prep and get ready for a brand new week here in Nicaragua. We'll be talking to you soon, hasta luego!